18 How (59 U.S.) 272 (1856), argued 30, 31 Jan., 1, 4 Feb. 1856, decided 19 Feb. 1856 by vote of 9 to 0; Curtis for the Court. Justice Benjamin R. Curtis's opinion in this case provided the Supreme Court's first analysis of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The notorious Samuel Swartwout had embezzled $1.5 million in customs receipts and used the monies to purchase land. The Treasury Department issued distress warrants (a non-judicial procedure) to void the land sales and recover the funds. Swartwout and purchasers of the lands challenged the proceedings as a violation of due process and the separation of powers.
For a unanimous Court, Curtis upheld the constitutionality of this process, holding that the federal government could resort to non-judicial procedures to recover funds embezzled from it. He interpreted the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to be the equivalent of the “law of the land” provisions that first appeared in Magna Carta's clause thirty-nine (p. 276). His interpretation of the Due Process Clause—“the article is a restraint on the legislative as well as on the executive and the judicial powers of the government, and cannot be construed as to leave Congress free to make any process ‘due process of law’”—relied on traditional procedural conceptions of due process, but contained within it an ambiguous hint of the possibility of a substantive interpretation (p. 276). With the New York Court of Appeals’ contemporaneous decision in Wynehamer v. People, Murray's Lessee indirectly presaged the late nineteenth-century doctrine of substantive due process. However, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ignored both opinions in his reliance on the Due Process Clause in his DredScott dictum, and Curtis's opinion proved to be a premature anticipation of later doctrinal developments.
Thomas C. Mackey